“Ole! Ole! Ole!” The chant was crystal clear, ringing out from the ecstatic home fans packing the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu’s steep stands.
It was clearly audible, but it was scarcely believable, as Real Madrid toyed with an off the pace Barcelona in the two to three minutes prior to Benzema’s 38th minute contest-ending second goal last night.
The La Liga campaign kicks off at the weekend, there are much more than the last knockings of the summer transfer window to come. And yet we have almost certainly witnessed one of the defining images of the 2017-18 season in this bloodless 2-0 Supercopa Final second leg and its 5-1 aggregate scoreline.
Make no mistake, no team could have so humiliated the great Barcelona in the golden age era of Messi, Guardiola, Xavi, Iniesta and La Masia. But they can do it now. And this is where we are at currently.
“Ole! Ole! Ole!” This is what it sounds like when time catches up with a once great team.
Perhaps the only surprise is that the Barcelona project has endured so long. By the club’s own reckoning they enjoyed the best years in their history between 2008-2016. As the world’s greatest team they accrued two Champions Leagues, three La Liga titles and a Club World Cup.
In 2009, Barcelona won all six major trophies they competed for in what was an unprecedented instance of dominance in the history of European football. When the Guardiola era ended in 2012, Barça continued their success under Tito Vilanova (winning the league in 2012/13) and under Luis Enrique who tweaked the house style to win the Champions League, the League and the Spanish Cup in another historic treble winning season in 2015.
But this was always really Guardiola’s team and Barcelona’s golden age peaked with its master-class fourth Champions League victory of 2011 over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at Wembley. That the imperious performance in a 3-1 win is arguably the best ever performance in Champions League history, is one thing.
But what made the game especially significant was that seven out of the eleven starters came home-grown, from Barcelona’s famed academy at La Masia.
It was a game that moved Sir Alex Ferguson to claim without demur that “they’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way. No one has given us a hiding like that.”
That quote is embedded now within the rich tapestry of football’s history and it will be wheeled out as evidence whenever football people celebrate the greatest teams ever to have played the game.
Sir Alex of course, is football’s great survivor, a master team-builder of multiple great sides during vastly different eras, and like no other perhaps, he understands the cruelty of the ticking clock that ensures that nothing lasts forever, in football or in life. It is the cruel reality that Barcelona now face as time and the tide of momentum move emphatically against them.
Less widely reported now is the stark warning contained within Sir Alex’s post-match press conference; that seems especially apposite now: “But how long it lasts … whether they can replace that team at some point … they certainly have the right philosophy, but it’s always difficult to find players like Xavi [Hernández], [Andrés] Iniesta and [Lionel] Messi all the time.”
Past their peak
So, ask yourself honestly: how many players in this Barcelona side could replace their opposite number at Real Madrid?
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez get in on merit but after that its a matter of deep debate.
The established stars: Pique, Busquets, Mascherano, Alba are past their peak. The supporting cast are either good but not great or potential liabilities at this unforgiving level. When would you have said that so clearly about a Barcelona side in recent years? It feels like Barcelona are at the end of a cycle, a crossroads just as Real Madrid gear up for a period of prolonged dominance of the kind Guardiola’s Barcelona dream team enjoyed just a few short years ago.
And that’s the difference between the clubs currently. Barcelona are very much weakened whenever they are without Lionel Messi. Their star man’s superhuman exploits ameliorate the myriad flaws in a creaking, vulnerable team. And yet, Real Madrid are still the best team there is around without their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, as they were last night, following his first leg red card.
And no longer is the Barcelona first team packed with youth team graduates. The La Masia conveyor belt has stalled as has its youngsters pathway to the first team, with their place being taken instead by expensive, zestless imports of dubious provenance – Paulinho, a Brazilian flop at Tottenham, recruited for £36.4m from China being but the latest example.
Andre Gomes, Arda Turan, Umiti, Ter Stegen and even Rakitic are players of some merit but not in the same category as Fergie’s lauded trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. And that is because there is literally no-one who can match their benchmark-setting standards available to Barcelona. And indeed those players with genuine pretensions to doing so are broadly resident in Madrid, specifically within Real Madrid’s dynamic front six, or in Neymar’s case in a gilded cage, self-imposed exile at PSG.
Last night, Barcelona shorn of the departed Neymar who has presumably read the runes and decided to exit stage left, were simply blown away by a Real Madrid side that has swept aside all before them since the arrival of Zinedine Zidane as manager in January 2016.
Firstly, there’s the roll call of six trophies in 18 months: two Champions Leagues, two European Super Cups, a Club World Cup and a La Liga title along with the Supercopa de Espana.
Secondly, there’s the squad depth, two class acts for every position and a dynamic blend of Spanish talent and imported stars. There are 12 Spanish nationals in the roster (notably Ramos, Isco, Asensio and Vasquez) adorning a midfield perming 3-4 of Modric, Kroos, Isco and Casemiro that forms the basis of Los Blancos current dominance with and without the ball. Costing combined fees of 88m Euros this midfield quartet stack up at less then the fee Man United paid Juventus for Paul Pogba.
In the two years since Xavi signed off at Barcelona with the treble under Luis Enrique, the club have spent 112m Euros in pursuit of his replacement. But those players: Arda Turan, Andre Gomes, Ivan Rakitic, Denis Suarez and Paulinho are simply not in the same ball park.
But who is?
Faced with the reality of a lack of available star quality either at home or in the transfer market you would have to ask why have Barcelona not sought to reinvent their fortunes with a team-based rather than a star-based approach – like Real Madrid have done? Is it conceivable that there is really precious little talent around and that Barcelona’s two capital city rivals in Madrid and to a lesser degree in Paris, have a monopoly on all of it? As the game unfolded live in Madrid last night and in Cardiff in May during the 2017 Champions League demolition of Juventus it appeared to be a completely plausible explanation.
So why are we where we are with Barcelona? Is it poor management or recruitment? Are we witnessing the last unravellings of a philosophy that was only ever a moment in time? Is it all simply a function of competition and its natural ebb and flow?
Certainly the great Xavi himself has felt moved to warn the Barcelona board that they have lost their way.
“In general, the club has fallen asleep. We need to strengthen the academy and the model of the club.”
Xavi’s call to arms provoked a matter of fact response from president Josep Maria Bartomeu. “The problem is Xavi, Iniesta, Messi …” he said.
Having scaled the heights of the impossible how do you succession plan for the inevitable decline of the irreplaceable?
Within that context you have to fear for Barcelona, and a global fanbase who’ve known nothing but success for over a decade and the unrealistic expectations that engenders.
The history of football is a history of great empires rising and then falling to dust, often with little warning. At the very least, precedent suggests that Barcelona could have some difficult times ahead and there will certainly be no shortage of opponents smelling blood and seeking revenge for those peak year beatings Messi and co. habitually meted out in their prime.
The chorus of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” at the Bernabéu last night is bad enough, humiliating for great champions. But in reality it is the least of Barcelona’s problems. It is how they respond, on the field and in the transfer market, that will decide what happens next.